Diet Pepsi may seem innocuous enough, the watered-down kin of its syrupy counterpart; the conservative, appropriated version of a hugely popular, mass-consumed beverage. The only edge to it may just be the rumors of its aspartame link to cancer, something I’ve heard for years but don’t have the motivation to switch to my web browser and find a reputable confirmation. It’s just the less-guilty version of a vice, like lean meat or SatisfriesTM. The airplane edit of an R-rated movie.
For their “Think Young, Drink Young” campaign, Diet Pepsi released a commercial depicting a raucous and muddy concert headlined by none other than Christian pop-punk pioneers MxPx, shot during Mike Herrera’s Keanu Reeves phase. At the time of its airing, they were my favorite band.
Playing a song from (ironically) their tamest and most mainstream album, the band is shown delivering a powerhouse show where a moshing fan recognizes his father next to him in the pit drinking a Diet Pepsi. Punk rock equals Youth equals Diet Soda — and I think we just cracked Stephen Hawking’s theory of everything. Given the lack of MxPx’s widespread appeal, they could have been replaced with any generic energetic rock band; the story was rooted in the music and frenetic editing, not in their band’s celebrity.
To my small group of friends in high school whose only awareness of MxPx was through me, they now had an easy target. I was the socially awkward, identifiable punk kid clinging to the music’s anti-social values and anti-establishment method as a means of my own acceptance. My friends shopped at preppy chain stores and listened to Top 40. Their values were already on primetime television and in malls; mine were somewhere underground in dingy basements and given life through Peavey amplifiers. Yet here it was, and the association between MxPx and Diet Pepsi still lives on as one of our longest running inside jokes. It was too easy: MxPx sold out. And to a diet brand!
And so selling out used to be a thing. Many a debate, in person and online, involved the idea of an artist selling out and losing their credibility. Usually this meant signing to a major label, “softening” or dumbing down music by adding instrumentation that wasn’t electric or distorted, the dreaded commercial license.
This idea has largely, and appropriately, gone by the wayside. Currently, more ridicule is placed on the idea of what a “sell out” is than the actual merits of the argument. Most people realize, given the current musical landscape, any ancillary income, like licensing, is generally considered necessary to sustain a career in music — while message boards placing the made up currency of punk-credibility are arbitrary and detrimental. But what happened to all the punks of yesteryear? Have they all gone soft or country?
On a yearly basis, I still find new offerings worth listening to from favorite artists of the past, the ones responsible for much of the music of my formative years in the bombastic, nostalgia rich soil of the mid-’90s to early aughts. There’s the marathon career musicians (Starflyer 59 comes to mind, still active since ’93), the re-inventors (now-part-time, MxPx’s own Mike Herrera fronts outlaw country band Tumbledown), to the more traditional trajectory of a rock band whose frontman finds semi-retirement as a singer-songwriter solo artist. In the spirit of detailing a true sell out, I thought I’d look at an act that has not only quieted down but also skirts the traditional band model of full-time touring cycles and heavily promo-ed album drops. And man, has it paid off.
This past year, one of my top releases came from (seemingly) nowhere: Chris Staples, the former frontman of Tooth and Nail band Twothirtyeight. I wasn’t surprised because he’s a great songwriter; I was honestly surprised to see his name at all. I hadn’t followed his career much at all since Twothirtyeight called it quits in 2003, so when I saw a Chris Staples — the Chris Staples, the same person who once fronted an emo band with a song called “The Bathroom is a Creepy Place for Pictures of Your Friends” — had a new album out on Barsuk Records, I had to investigate. Intrigued, I checked out the advance stream. It was exactly what you expect from a solo artist born of the alternative scene: stripped down acoustic with traces of folk.
The unexpected thing was how engrossing the songs were. The singer/songwriter genre is really a showcase of lyrics and vocals, not so much plying anything new from traditional chord structures or patterns.
I’ve often enjoyed the genre as a whole as “pleasant enough.” I’ve warmed up to stripped-down albums as summer dusk records or the I’m-editing-a-video-for-church-and-need-inoffensive-music records. I’ve heard many bare demos and minimalist recordings just fail to grab or distinguish their sound from their humble components.
And American Soft definitely carries the airy, summery vibe you would assume, its melodies casually sung and drifting mid-tempo. The words and vocals have a chance to shine, and they deliver. The production is sparse enough, but the percussion — at times just hand-claps and foot-stomps — has a way of sounding huge in the minimalist middle ground of low end and cavernous reverb. This is an album you can wrap your head around on first listen; at a just over 30 minutes, you’ll quickly distinguish the songs from one another, and the songs contain only around five-to-six separate elements. But this only serves to elevate the subtle, infecting melodies and clever lyrics with soothing, doctor’s-orders delivery. In some ways, it’s dressed down to truly showcase the best of the singer-songwriter craft. And this is it.
The vocals show a restraint that only serves to accentuate the melancholy nature of the songs. This is not a bad thing. The songs are short and pointed, often a two verse and two chorus structure, but the words are memorable and the melodies are demanding, belying their soft-spun nature. Staples may sound bored or just contemplative to some, but to me it’s more of a “real at-ease” feeling, Whether he’s creating the perfect Summer Saturday (“Now I’m making drinks on the patio / Hall and Oates playing on the stereo”) or reminiscing over a life that seems both aimless and well-spent (“Fifty-seven years, I drank fifty thousand beers / And now they’re passing through me like the ocean through the piers”), it rests on the ears with both confidence and a gentle lethargy.
Some of my favorite artists have produced hours of quality material over the spans of their respective careers. In some cases, multiple careers. Some bands I align with sonically to the tune of side-projects and solo work from various contributing members for a storied body of work, splintered into the compounding of their individual contributions. Some voices are so affecting to me I can follow them through stylistic shifts, wild detours, experimental dives and pandering for them. Some artists are worth following when they go diet.
Chris Staples has changed as an artist, but he continually makes music worth listening to. That’s a songwriter who transcends genres, and that’s a voice worth following; no calories, but some ukulele, an artificial sweetener.